Calories or Sugar? Finding the right message.

PHE have recently announced new targets on calories and moved the focus of their consumer communications away from sugar to calorie counting. We think this is a mistake.

There is some debate over the science behind the calories in calories out theory, with many saying that “you can’t burn off a bad diet”. We’re not nutritionists; we’ll leave that debate to those guys.

Our expertise is behaviour change, marketing, messaging; we focus on the effective rather than the perfect. If we want to effect change in the health of the nation PHE need to pause for thought, and here’s four reasons why.

For once we have (sorry, had) all major parties on the same message – PHE, the NHS, campaigners and media all saying the same thing – eat less sugar. A major barrier to improvements in public health is confusion; the remedy is one single message. Getting everybody on the same page is ridiculously difficult, and PHE just blew it.

Secondly, simplicity. Simple gets done, complicated gets discussed. We had it nailed, eat less sugar, easy to communicate, easy to understand and easy to execute.

Thirdly, misleading. We are all horribly aware that the calories in calories out model encourages people to burn a few hundred calories in the gym twice a week and then eat 300 calories too many every day. It creates a sense that calories are a “reward” and exercise a “chore”. An outlook which remains long after the gym sessions have lapsed. As a piece of behaviour change communication it is a well-established fail.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it was working. According to the FSA’s Biannual Public Attitudes announced in February, sugar replaced price as the number one concern of British food consumers. Do you hear that? People are finally more concerned about what is in their food than what it costs. Halleluiah.

The food industry is investing heavily in reformulation, truckloads of sugar is coming out of the diet and the government is under huge pressure to do more. It’s working, we’re actually winning (a little), so what should you do, press home the advantage or change direction?


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